Cult of the Family

The apocalyptic group The Family and their guru, Anne Hamilton-Byrne – one of few female cult leaders – captured international headlines throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Hamilton-Byrne, a yoga teacher who some followers believed was Jesus Christ in a female form, was glamorous, charismatic and as many allege, a dangerous psychopath. From her base in the hills above Melbourne, she recruited wealthy professionals to join her cult, including psychiatrists, doctors, lawyers, nurses, architects and scientists.

The series spans over half a century, digging deep into the cult of The Family and its duplicitous, alluring leader. At the heart of her cult was a dark and terrible secret – a bizarre experiment to raise a ‘master race’ of children who would save the world after Armageddon. Along with her husband Bill, Anne was able to collect numerous children – some through adoption scams, some born to cult members and others unwittingly handed over by single mothers – to raise as their own. Home-schooled in an isolated compound, dressed identically and with dyed blonde hair, these regimented children were controlled by a group of ‘Aunties’ under Anne’s supervision. In 1987, after one of the children escaped, police and community services raided The Family’s lakeside compound.

The children recount terrible stories of near starvation, emotional manipulation, physical abuse and dosing with LSD and tranquillisers, but Anne cannot be found.

Her disappearance sparks an international police hunt. Can she be brought to justice? Despite Operation Forest, a five-year police investigation over three continents, Anne walks away without a jail sentence and just a paltry $5,000 fine. How did she get off so lightly? How did Anne maintain a hold over her followers? And how did such a notorious group come to flourish?

The series tracks Operation Forest as it tries to uncover who Anne really was and how she recruited Dr Raynor Johnson, respected Melbourne University College Master, to co-found the cult. It investigates the role of Newhaven, a private psychiatric hospital that Anne used as a cult recruiting ground.

The series features interviews with Peter Spence, Head of Operation Forest, and Marie Mohr, whose unflinching work as an investigative journalist forced Anne and members of the cult into the headlines.

At the heart of the series is the story of former Detective Lex de Man, who wrote the report that triggered Operation Forest and has supported survivors in their fight for justice right to the present day.

The series excavates the evidence gathered by police and takes testimony from cult survivors, their relatives and those who are only now prepared to speak on the record. It probes the psychology of love and loyalty, power and betrayal, justice and truth to address the question – how did she get away with it?

Drawing on revelatory new research including police interviews, cult movie footage and interviews with survivors, The Cult of The Family tells the strange and shocking story of one of the most bizarre cults in modern history.

Curriculum Links:

The Cult of The Family is suitable for secondary students in Years 10–12 studying English, Ethics, Health and Human Development, Legal Studies, Media, Psychology and Sociology.


The Cult of The Family can be used as an individual or supplementary text. Students should study texts that explore ethical dilemmas in real-world settings. It is also recommended that students have access to non-fiction texts that represent a synthesis of information from credible and verifiable sources. Activities in this study guide provide opportunities for students to:

  • identify and discuss key aspects of the documentary;
  • comprehend, appreciate and analyse the way in which the documentary is constructed and may be interpreted;
  • construct spoken, written and multimodal responses to the documentary.


The Cult of The Family can be used to investigate the ways in which the law and the legal system relate to and serve individuals, particularly children, and the community. In addition, the documentary can be used to study the administration of justice. Activities in this study guide provide opportunities for students to:

  • understand how laws are used by society to preserve social cohesion, and to ensure the protection of people from harm and from the infringement of their rights;
  • acquire an understanding of legal rights, responsibilities and ways in which individuals can engage in the legal system;
  • understand the need for effective laws and legal processes;
  • apply legal reasoning and decision-making to contemporary cases and issues;
  • engage in analysis and evaluation of existing legal processes and form opinions about the operation of the legal system.


The Cult of The Family can be used to study the documentary’s representation of events, people, organisations, places and ideas. Activities in this study guide provide opportunities for students to:

  • understand the codes and conventions that are used to construct media narratives;
  • analyse media narratives to understand how meaning is constructed and how audiences are engaged;
  • learn that media narratives are created through a process of selection, construction and representation;
  • analyse and discuss the selection of images, words, sounds and ideas and the ways in which these are presented, related and ordered;
  • understand how media representations are subject to multiple readings by audiences who construct meaning based on a range of personal, contextual, social and institutional factors.


The Cult of The Family can be used to study aspects of social psychology by examining interpersonal and group behaviour. It is generally accepted that a key factor in the psychological well-being of individuals depends on the extent to which the need for affiliation is met – a sense of belonging and connectedness whether it be to family, a group, a school or workplace, or a wider community. Activities in this study guide provide opportunities for students to:

  • explain how attitudes are formed and changed;
  • analyse how behaviour and perceptions of self and others are shaped by social and cultural influences including the attitudes and behaviours of groups;
  • discuss the factors that affect the behaviour of individuals and groups;
  • understand the interplay of factors that shape the behaviour of individuals and groups.


The Cult of The Family can be used to study human behaviour and in particular, the social institution of The Family and the purpose and experiences of family life portrayed in the documentary. In addition, the documentary can be used to study concepts of deviance and crime. The study of deviance and crime from a sociological perspective involves ascertaining the types and degree of rule-breaking behaviour, examining traditional views of criminality and deviance and analysing why people commit crimes or engage in deviant behaviour. Activities in this study guide provide opportunities for students to:

  • consider definitions of family and key influences on family life;
  • examine the ways people create and experience family life;
  • analyse the institution of family;
  • explain the role that family plays in terms of influencing the values and behaviours of family members;
  • explore the concepts of deviance and crime;
  • investigate the threat a subculture or group may pose to the social values and culture of broader society.

Teachers are advised to consult the Australian Curriculum online and curriculum outlines relevant to their state or territory for further information.

The series is also a valuable resource for students undertaking certificate and tertiary courses in Children and Family Services, Community Services, Psychology, Sociology, Social Work and Media, Film and Journalism.

It is supported by an ATOM Study Guide.